A Lover’s Guide to American Playwrights

Daniel Alexander Jones

With what shall we arm ourselves for the dark? I borrow the question from Daniel Alexander Jones, and I ask it a lot lately. Daniel has been asking it, maybe, since he first noticed night. He poses it to us now, in our ever-hateful American moment, with increased urgency and focus. The question drives his most recent concert/theatre performance, Black Light, a brief title thick with contradiction and meaning, my favorite being radiant blackness.

The New York production of Black Light at the Greenwich House Theater closed in November, some weeks earlier than anticipated. I only got to see it whole twice—despite a desire to stake out every performance—but I thought that, by writing about Daniel’s work, long an inspiration to me, I might keep it alive, if only in mind. You see, one of the things I’ve learned from this necessary artist is this: We arm ourselves with works of beauty, spirit, strength, and truth. We arm ourselves with the art we love.

One of the things I’ve learned from this necessary artist is this: We arm ourselves with works of beauty, spirit, strength, and truth. We arm ourselves with the art we love.

I find it hard to imagine anything braver than the example of those who face down American brutality with clear eyes and loving hearts. I can’t do it. I opt for the optimism my whiteness affords and so forsake clarity. Or my vengeful heart kicks in, blocking love. But rare souls like Daniel Jones, and his wise, resplendent cousin, the pop diva Jomama Jones, hold strength and light in balance. Daniel embodies, or maybe channels, his alter-ego Jomama, and he kindles in our minds the final image of her: a majestic woman in a luminous white gown and towering heels, facing down night and the violence it will almost surely bring. She carries a shotgun in one hand and a powerful flashlight in the other.

The image echoes Black Light’s central story: when twelve-year-old Jomama, a young “northern girl with no home training,” visits her forbidding Great-Aunt Cleotha, she discovers a secret about the old woman’s nocturnal habits. Cleotha, as a child, had witnessed the murder of her older brother at the hands of white neighbors and had herself been maimed in the attack. Her brother’s offense: on leave from the army, he showed up in town in his soldier’s uniform. Witness defines Aunt Cleotha’s life ever after, the responsibility of witness, the back labor of it. We, too, are called upon to witness the threats emerging from the dark woods around us, and to consider how we will act. If, as Jomama makes clear, we are at a crossroads, which fork will we take?

child actor singing

Duat at Soho Rep, fall 2016. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

“What if I told you it's going to be all right? What if I told you, not yet? What if I told you that we won't all make it through?” This is the challenge that hangs in the air, even in the show’s most dazzling, musical moments: Who or what are we willing to sacrifice to free ourselves, separately and together, from the hate of others?

Daniel has grown a mature body of work from questions, unique practice, and an ever-present artistic ancestry. He holds opposing energies in artistic suspension—darkness and illumination, violence and love, skepticism and hope. Jomama brings her conjurer balance, too, a counterweight for his tender heart. With her gimlet eye and wry majesty, Jo keeps her cousin’s edge sharp. Together they are fearless. However hateful the enemy, the Joneses maintain communal celebration as the center of their offering. With them we celebrate the fullness of human capacity. We celebrate the theatre as a way of enlarging ourselves, increasing our empathy—thinking with the body, feeling with the spirit, singing with the mind. “There is no work harder than expanding what can be…” Jomama sang in an earlier show. We sing the body electric, eclectic, expressive, and expansive.

Daniel…holds opposing energies in artistic suspension—darkness and illumination, violence and love, skepticism and hope.

Daniel is often pegged as a solo performer, but he is no more a solo performer than Taylor Mac, the artist I think of as his fellow traveler and peer in reshaping theatre culture through monologue and song. Both perform solo acts with a full complement of distinctive collaborators—musicians, singers, designers, composers, and directors. Daniel has his band; Taylor, his minions. Both flower in the most bio-diverse gardens. I once heard Daniel, in a solo performance workshop, tell students that the first principle of solo work is that it is never solo; it is always created with others. And he proves it. Even the audience—which he uniquely forges into a community at each performance—is part of that creation.

Against the national myth that hails the “self-made,” Daniel lifts up a powerful countermyth: selfhood is collectively made, shaped by the community of others. We can watch this communitarian evolution of Daniel himself—or the characters who stand in for him—over the course of his writing career. The Book of Daniel, which he calls “a feast of fears,” an early solo work devised in intense collaboration with numerous others, takes on this idea directly.

Against the national myth that hails the “self-made,” Daniel lifts up a powerful countermyth: selfhood is collectively made, shaped by the community of others.

As a child the incipient artist observes, soaking in the songs around him. A house named José narrates the protagonist Daniel’s story, translated by a black cat:

See here? His love affair with art begins when he is a child. See here? In the undressed rooms of the bird mother and the lion father. In this small yellow house on the short street. There he is, silver brown eyes and giggles. The bird mother plays records and dances with the lion father. Miriam Makeba. Odetta. José Feliciano, after whom they christen me (this house) José. Daniel watches the music tie his parents together. Daniel hears this house creak side to side in time.

The Book of Daniel begins a song cycle that in some ways continues through today. In it we meet the first of a line of instigating ancestors—Makeba, Odetta, Feliciano. This line, too, keeps unspooling.

In a later play, Bel Canto, the boy is now called Benjamin. He is stopped on the street by a woman named Scarlatti, who will become his mentor. She teaches him to sing and introduces him to Opera. She then leads him to Marian Anderson, the first of many divas, singers who, as his personal angels, will make him the artist he will one day become.

It is 1939, and the great African American contralto, having been denied an indoor hall for her concert, makes an extraordinary appearance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

BARBARA

There were thousands of us, Benjamin.

Endless cluster of faces and hands

leaning toward those high marble steps

Awkward together in this

sudden wonderment

on Easter Sunday[…]

As Barbara Scarlatti tells her story, the stage as Daniel describes it, silently and magically fractures and reforms into “a modified Flag with vertical stripes and a horizontal bar of blue and stars.”

BARBARA

Her entrance, you see, was the shock of

pure radiance

She walked down the steps

to the wide bank of microphones

Her face… I can see it as though…

You see, light streamed forth from her face…

She opened her mouth…

And the wave of sound,

the rolling luminous wave

Oh! we barely breathed

[…] we all stood in her presence…

bowed

transfixed

lifted

our hot tears stung our cheeks

for, on that day, that woman, Benjamin, that great lady from

Philadelphia, belonged to something far greater than anything

we could rightly name…

Barbara guides the boy into the heart of music and towards that something “far greater.” She also shepherds him into a complex, disturbing narrative of race. She was on those Memorial steps as a girl. She broke away from her mother and met the eyes of the magnificent singer. The child Barbara then heard a familiar voice among the musicians, packing their instruments and recapping the day.

And there among them

As plain as day

was my father.

Without even thinking,

I cried out

Papa! Papa!

I bounded further up the tall steps,

he turned his face toward me

and a look of clear terror flashed across it.

I tripped and fell,

rolling back and down,

tearing my stockings,

bloodying my hands, my knees,

cutting my lip.

I stood shakily and turned back to find him.

He looked down

for an incredible instant

this child saw through him…Benjamin…

The way you can see through me right now…

My father. (All that time)

He was afraid that people would

discover that he in fact was a colored man.

My father

then quickly turned his face

and receded into the Memorial

with the other musicians.

The stripes and bars re-form. We are in the landscape of music, of art, of America, of race—which is the central story of our nation. And that other story, too, when Benjamin throws himself into a fight in the high school shower, where another boy is getting beaten for being gay. Barbara Scarlatti offers the boy a thread that will lead him, not out of the maze, but into it. Daniel Alexander Jones does this, too. He extends a hand to us, singing, “Open, open wider. Feel more deeply./Transform, transform, transform.” And he ushers us into the shadow maze of America.

performer singing with hands outreached

Black Light at Joe's Pub. Photo by Chad Batka.

For all the beauty, for all the glorious song spinning on the turntable or descending on the Washington Mall, transformation is messy, and change requires sacrifice. Fathers leave, children die, poverty and addiction are real. The past haunts the present. Race hate doesn’t stop at the property line; it doesn’t spare the child. All those teachers and angelic guides “got us through, but couldn’t get us over,” as Jomama reminds us.

One more example, because Daniel is a master of structure, too, and his forms follow his questions. Phoenix Fabrik takes its form from the ring shout, an ecstatic ritual found in North American and the West Indian worship practices and assumed to be rooted in African dance. You see the shout in children’s play, too, the slapping and calling, the circling and clapping. But this circling also becomes the way to knowledge in the play, the way to collect the literal bones of the past, to hunt the perpetrators of the past’s horror—specifically violence against blacks in the South. The circle becomes the way to mend as well, the difficult path to forgiveness. We circle and shout. We find our way back. We find our way to ourselves. How many ways can we find?

In everything he writes, Daniel leans on legacy, artistic influence, spiritual lineage, the mentorship of elders. In his book-in-progress, Blue Night, which began as an essayistic attempt to explore the concept of "Afro-mysticism," he has fashioned fierce, loving portraits of African-American women artists and teachers who have shaped his thought and creative project. He pays homage to them, just as, through the songs of Jomama Jones, he channels the great tradition of twentieth century black women balladeers. Entering the theatre for Duat, which premiered at Soho Rep in 2016, the audience encountered two walls of card catalogues, the old school library search engine. The small drawers had name cards on them: Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Toni Morrison, and more. We are always at this crossroads, where the road that leads to us and the one that leads us on meet.

Daniel is an artist of intimate acts that ripple out with profound impact. At the Morris Dees Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, there’s a civil rights memorial designed by the architect/sculptor Maya Lin. The memorial is a conical black stone, whose surface forms a polished table, etched with a timeline, a time circle of the key moments in the struggle for Civil Rights. Inspired by Martin Luther King’s famous words “…we will not be satisfied until justice flows down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream,” a gentle rush of water flows over the black granite table. Spectators circle the circle, touching the water, running their fingers over the moments of history and, in essence, helping move the table of history and, more, subtly redirect the path of the water.

This is how I think about the work of Daniel Alexander Jones, a single, humble hand, turning the table, redirecting the path of the water. A solo hand, working in concert with so many others, showing us that change, however painful, is possible, that we are dimensional, that history is a circle and that we will turn it. We stand to face the dark. What will we carry?

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A Lover's Guide to American Playwrights 

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